Lawmakers advance bill to protect Liberty State Park wildlife preserve

Environmentalists hope the legislation will head off development efforts

By: - August 8, 2022 6:29 pm

Caven Point at Liberty State Park, left, is an important area for migratory birds. It sits adjacent to Liberty National Golf Club, right, in Jersey City. (Danielle P. Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey lawmakers unanimously advanced a bill Monday that would protect Caven Point, an environmentally fragile peninsula in Liberty State Park that has been threatened by development.

The vote came nearly six weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy signed another bill to open Liberty State Park up to commercial development, which activists warned left Caven Point vulnerable.

A handful of environmentalists pleaded with lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill Monday, to protect the nature preserve that environmental activist Jeff Tittel called “the only place in Hudson County that’s still a wild place.”

The area is a haven for 120 species of resident and migratory birds, provides free waterfront access in a densely populated urban region, and acts as an outdoor classroom where visitors can experience nature up close, said Allison McLeod, policy director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

“Once something’s gone, you can’t get it back. It’s over and no amount of regret can bring it back,” McLeod said.

Environmentalists and park supporters have long fought efforts to develop parts of the park, which already has a marina, two restaurants, and a few other businesses. Paul Fireman, the billionaire owner of a luxury golf course nearby, has for years wanted to expand his golf course onto Caven Point.

Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, assured preservationists he would defend Caven Point and told them he would visit it soon.

“I would never support privatization in the park. I’ll make sure you’re involved and I’ll stay involved myself with this,” Stack said. “I wouldn’t feel right if I couldn’t get this bill done.”

When state lawmakers in June fast-tracked legislation creating a task force to recommend redevelopment of the park, critics worried the bill would open the door again to Fireman. That law allocates $50 million to clean up a 235-acre polluted portion of the park, add active recreation opportunities like athletic fields, and explore other unspecified “economic development.”

Stack sponsored that bill and the one advanced on Monday.

Sam Pesin, who heads the Friends of Liberty State Park, has battled efforts to develop the park almost since it opened in 1976. He warned lawmakers Monday that the “destructive” law Murphy signed in June likely will cause traffic jams, threaten public access, and ruin the “unstructured” beauty of the park.

But he applauded the move to protect Caven Point.

“This bill is historic. It’s a milestone, and it’s tremendously welcomed,” Pesin said. “Caven Point is God’s country in the city.”

The bill still faces a vote before the full Senate, and an Assembly version hasn’t moved at all.

Monday’s committee meeting was a rare summer appearance for lawmakers, who typically recess at the end of June and don’t return until the fall. The Senate met Monday, though, primarily to confirm several judges to help alleviate a judicial vacancy crisis.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.